Developer/Publisher: Chronic Logic, the folks that brought us Pontifex
Release Date: May 2004, worldwide (online, self-published)
Genre Keywords: puzzle, platform, physics
Format: PC Download (~20MB), www.chroniclogic.com (site contains demo, screenshots and a gameplay trailer as well)
Price: 20 USD
There have undoubtedly been stranger premises for a platformer game, but none come to mind at the moment. Gish, you see, is a ball of tar. A very clever ball of tar out on a date with his girl, who has the misfortune to get captured by an unknown foe, and dragged into a subterranean labyrinth. Gish follows bravely into the depths, and will meet many obstacles and foes...
The main part of Gish's challenge is the main character's tarry nature. As a ball of tar, Gish has a lot of inertia but not an overwhelming amount of control. Every action will have a reaction, and misjudging a leap, slide or bounce can have disastrous consequences.
To aid you, Gish can cling, bounce, become heavy or become fluid - each ability changes Gish's appearance (and expression) slightly for (somewhat) easy identification. Clinging allows you to attach yourself to almost any surface, including the ceiling (hint: it also allows you to attach objects to Gish). Being fluid allows squeezing in through tight spots or tunnels. Being heavy drops Gish faster and gives him more weight, be it for squishing foes or tilting a scale. Finally, bouncing gives Gish some air, but for optimum jumping ability you'll have to compress Gish (when he falls and hits the ground, he becomes compressed) and then leap - obviously there'll be no quick jumps to evade danger here.
Danger comes in many forms. While Gish is primarily a puzzle platformer - break through walls, tilt levers, avoid spikes, balance weights, clamber over obstacles to find ways through the level - there are a few harsher enemies. Gish's ability to make himself heavy and land on their heads will eliminate them - with a nasty squishing sound - but the trick is to be above them and drop at the right time. This is not always easy...
The physics engine powering Gish is omnipresent. Every jump can give you inertia to topple an object, break through a barrier, or jump higher. By clinging to objects you can swing them around, make them fall off their perch or break the ropes they're suspended from. Gish's astonishingly fluid nature lets you hop up to grab a suspended block, slither around to the top, bounce to the next one, push it into a wall to make a crack and then pour through the gap. You can crush or repulse enemies by making yourself rigid, or float in water by simply relaxing. Every action feels natural and appropriate.
Perhaps a little too appropriate; platformer players used to instant feedback, response and control may find Gish too constricting, too unresponsive, too damn slow. The agony of trying to wedge Gish into a small crack so you can lift up a beam to reach the secret spot, the gibbering madness awaiting you when Gish gets stuck on a spike and his life leeches away since you can't jump away, the panic as a lumbering enemy approaches and you just can't... get... airborne... - it's enough to make the hardiest of gamers weep. All your platformer instincts will have to be redefined, and I use a lot of negative words in this paragraph on purpose - it's almost physically painful to wrench Gish into the desired direction.
In time, you will master these issues, but be warned: Gish is fairly unforgiving of your mistakes. Be ready to die often and restart the level even more often - this is a game for the truly obsessive, the people who like watching those wacky timedemos where every move is scripted for optimum effectiveness and flair, or who enjoy speed runs and sequence breaking - yes, there are warp zones in the game. You can get to that level where Gish moves like a dream, nearly flowing through the complex creations, moving trapdoors, enemies and falling bridges - but until you gain that proficiency, you'll feel like a rag doll, being beat on by every single obstacle in every fiendish level. If you're one of those types that likes to replay levels until they're PERFECT, this is the capstone of those types of games; otherwise, you may feel quite, quite vexed.
Sound & Graphics
Gish doesn't really look like much - simple geometries, limited and samey textures and simple, cartoony enemies. But when everything starts to move, the dynamic lighting breaking through holes in walls you just made, everything swinging, ricocheting, bouncing or crushing - it looks quite nice. The only slight issue that I have is that the viewing area could be larger - I prefer to see just a bit farther ahead than Gish's design allows, and have fallen to my doom a few times because of this limitation.
Sound is limited to squishes and thuds, but the background music soundtrack is excellent. It'll easily carry you through the entire game with its lounge ambient funky grooves or industrial raging chords.
In a game where every move has consequences, good control is paramount. While there are no real issues with movement here, you will most likely want to hook up a gamepad to your PC - getting used to the keys (jump, stick, heavy, squeeze) will not be very enjoyable. I still have some issues remembering which is which in the heat of running away from an enemy. Gish changes appearance slightly based on which action he's performing, but it's a bit too subtle, especially in well-lit areas (white cilia on a white background doesn't work well). Fortunately most of the sewers are quite dark...
As said earlier, if you're a type to replay a level until it's perfect, then Gish is the game for you. Not only will some levels hold secrets that you might discover on each run through, you'll start to discover (about halfway through) that your proficiency is so good, you might as well restart and play the early levels properly. Once you've done that and made it through again, you'll start timing yourself and setting up move combos that allow you to zip through the game fluidly (heh, heh, fluidly...). Then you'll start discovering secrets and warp zones, further boosting your confidence and enjoyment. Then! you'll get to the time trial stages which will challenge you all over again - these are set stages with built-in obstacles where you have to collect coins in a certain amount of time.
Those preferring the faster, more actiony and immediately intuitive - and free - run 'n jump platforming may wish to look at N (http://www.harveycartel.org/metanet/n.html) instead. Unlike Gish, it's not as cute, not quite as polished, doesn't have a good soundtrack, and will reboot your machine spontaneously upon closing the game. Where Gish is a full meal, N is a light snack - but these are not mutually exclusive. At 20 bucks, there's a lot of fun in here.